George Went Hensley (1880–1955), a preacher who left the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) when the Church noticed him taking part in snake handling and set specific rules that made certain that that denomination would have nothing to do with those types of practices, is credited with creating the first holiness movement church dedicated to snake handling in the 1920s. Sister-churches later sprang up throughout the Appalachian region.
As in the early days, worshipers are still encouraged to lay hands on the sick (cf. Faith healing), speak in tongues (cf. Glossolalia), provide testimony of miracles, and occasionally consume poisons such as strychnine. Gathering mainly in homes and converted buildings, they generally adhere to strict dress codes such as uncut hair, no cosmetics and ankle-length dresses for women, and short hair and long-sleeved shirts for men. Most snake handlers preach against any use of all types of tobacco and alcohol.
Most religious snake handlers are still found in the Appalachian Mountains and other parts of the southeastern United States, especially in such states as Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Ohio. However, they are gaining steady recognition from news broadcasts, movies and books about the non-denominational movement.In 2001 there were about 40 small churches that practiced snake handling, most considered to be holiness-Pentecostals or charismatics. Some of the leaders in these churches have been bitten numerous times, as indicated by their distorted extremities. For example, the founder of modern snake handling in the Appalachian Mountains died from snakebite in 1955. In 1998, snake-handling evangelist John Wayne "Punkin" Brown died after being bitten by a timber rattler at the Rock House Holiness Church in rural northeastern Alabama.
The states of Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee have passed laws against the use of venomous snakes and/or other reptiles in a place that endangers the lives of others, or without a permit. Most snake handling practices, therefore, take place in the homes of worshippers, which avoids the process of attempting to obtain a government permit for the church.
In July 2008, 10 people were arrested and 125 venomous snakes were confiscated as part of an undercover sting operation titled "Twice Shy." Pastor Gregory James Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name was arrested and 74 snakes were seized from his home as part of the sting.
The practice is legal in the state of West Virginia.